BY VITTORIA BENZINE, March 2021
New York-based Israeli artist Nir Hod has obviously been bitten by the serpent. A quick search for this term yields only medical treatments and quotes from the Christian bible, no mentions of any colloquial phrases, which is strange because in his 1992 book Liber Kaos, Peter Carroll writes that “The awakening of the octarine power is sometimes known as ‘being bitten by the serpent.’”
“Those who have been are usually as instantly recognizable to each other as, for example, two lifeboat survivors,” Carroll continues. Maybe this phrase never took root in greater society, but it’s stuck in my mind since I first read it. Liber Kaos outlines the author’s attempt at a quantifiable magic, seeking roots in physics. Octarine power is the spirit of this magic itself. Whatever it is, Nir Hod has had it since he was young.
“I didn't choose to be an artist,” he told me, seated at his studio in Jersey City. “Since I was a child I was very problematic, in a nice way.” Vital and impish, he excelled in surfing and BMX but also in finding trouble. After getting kicked out of school at fourteen, Hod applied to a beachside art school in Tel Aviv similar to New York’s famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, chasing mostly surf and sun.
“In the 1980s, even the 1990s, it was not the cool thing to study art,” Hod recalled. “Now it has so much sex appeal.” The first year was a disaster—“I didn't know even how to hold a pencil”—but in the second year, Hod began studying the Rennaissance. “I was so fascinated with Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael,” he remarked. “It almost woke me up. It’s like something came out of the dark—I was so fascinated with these three artists. In three to four months, I changed my life, my look, my skin.”
He began reading Oscar Wilde, Spinoza, and Goethe and stopped going to the beach. He found himself unable to sleep, painting for days at a time like an actor who couldn’t recognize his scene had ended. “The imagination is so strong,” Hod said. “The emotion of real life is very pale compared to what you have in your mind, especially as an artist.”
Hod became an appendage to his ability’s will. After minimum mandatory conscription, he began his BFA at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, in 1989. He also began reading Interview Magazine and watching MTV. “We started to have these new video clips from London of new songs, new bands,” he remembered. “It was almost like a new language.”
Artistically, Hod competed with the new magazines for titles in photorealism. His first group shows took place in Israel during the early 1990s. Shortly after, he travelled Europe and encountered further inspiration. “When you travel and you see art, you see texture,” he explained. There’s impasto, dirt, sometimes even hair in those invaluable relics. “You see the values and the volume and also the quality.”
He moved to New York City in 1999 with no friends and no grasp of the language. “A lot of my works at the beginning were about this idea to be seductive, to try to be beautiful so somebody will take you home with them,” Hod explained, “But home is something very conceptual.” Since then, he said, “When I'm at my studio, when I'm working, this is the only place I feel at home.”
There is an unnameable longing throughout Hod’s work, always shape shifting. Not quite tension, but something still dynamic. This longing is more like a loaded acknowledgement. “The beauty is that you have two ages, or some kind of conflict that can live together,” Hod offered. “The problem is the middle—the middle is not interesting.”
In his quest for extremes, Hod at once elevates both the ugliest uglies and blinding-est beauties. There is one other reference to snakes in Liber Kaos, which employs a serpent biting its own tail to represent time. In concept, what possibilities could this raise about the other spectrums society presently considers finite? Hod boasts a simple solution, maybe borne of being bit by the serpent: “I don't try to dig in it or to think about it too much. I want to work from a place that’s very much about the instinct.”
He debuted ‘Mother’ at Kasmin Gallery in 2012. One piece from the nine-painting series is now on view at the Jewish Museum in New York. In its entirety, ‘Mother’ replicates the same coiffed woman in subtly different hues, each with optical illusions harkening back to the northern renaissance. Resplendent in her poise, the figure’s chic appearance is a statement in itself, set against the abrupt candor of her body language.
“Everybody thought that she's shopping, she's going off to Bergdorf, the bag is Louis Vuitton or Prada,” Hod said. These same viewers were shocked to discover the photo that ties it all together at the end. ’Warsaw Ghetto Boy’ is an iconic image encapsulating the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s also the source material for Hod’s model. “She’s not his mother,” Hod explained. “Nobody knows.”
“Beauty can be something very ugly,” he pointed out, noting how far removed even a practiced viewer can become when their knee jerk reaction to every work they witness is to declare it beautiful.
As an image producer and a storyteller, Hod challenges himself to sidestep traps set to craft carbon copies of any former success. This escape inadvertently led him to into his recent chrome paintings, works which have been shown at Kohn Gallery and have come to hang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
He wanted to create a mirrored effect alluding to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray—“something very metaphorical, very ghostly, very spiritual,” the artist elaborated. He found assistance in a Bronx-based team studied in a chroming technique developed by the US Navy in 1939, coincidentally, during World War II.
The series came to be titled ’The Life We Left Behind.’ One canvas suffered damage before the opening at Kohn Gallery. Hod was upset at first, but, as he recounted, “I came the day after and said, ‘It’s so much better than the idea I had, when you see the under painting through the chrome.’”
While these works certainly detonate that default response towards beautiful, Hod qualified that “They start with very dark subject matter, especially the walls at the gas chambers in Auschwitz.”
“At the same time, they look like the bathrooms in CBGB’s. I found that there is a parallel kind of look with a completely different history and context. But it's the same look, it depends where we put it.”
Viewers catch themselves in these reflective artworks, stop to peer in that very human way we all do, even as Hod continues experimenting, layering more and more paint over top. Beyond this reflection, a question begs itself quietly: where do we, nestled as we may be into the cozy confines of everyday life, factor into this complicated reality where cruelty and culture coexist?
“Once you’re standing in front of it, there is an image of yourself, and you can like it or you don’t like it,” Hod mused. “In a very romantic way, it’s like some kind of take about this time where we live, how a painting is functioning right now in this kind of society where we live.”
It could be difficult to stomach that we’re all unwittingly participating in this picture at all times. Hod acknowledged that trauma in art and in life are two completely separate matters. “A lot of my works talk about this idea of historical correction. All of the sudden you see this woman in a different way, or you see yourself in a different way, or you fall in love with something you're not supposed to, or you find the beauty in something you never saw,” he explained. “That's the power of art. Part of it is through some trauma, to create a new trauma or to fix trauma.”
Maybe people will never understand the truth about beauty, whatever that is. Maybe people will never come into their own octarine power.
“But that's the problematic beauty of it,” Hod rebutted. “This is nature. This is also a part of the balance of nature. Not nature, but life.”
Whatever is revealed to the viewer from every angle of any reflection, they’re probably intuitively aware of it—mostly, the reaction varies. Within each individual lies an infinite chasm of complexity, ever smaller, ever participating in something greater, infinite in the other direction. Carroll’s overarching argument espouses an eclectic approach tailored to the human level. Just like ugliness and beauty, there’s all shades and shapes of magic in this world.
“When there is magic, I don't try to understand it,” Hod concluded. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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